Thursday began with British Tom sitting on a wall. The architecture of the British Museum is impressive but classy and Tom decided to enjoy it from the comfort of a low stone wall outside the main entrance. Twenty minutes later, some jobsworth in a luminescent vest wandered over, forbidding all such sedentary activity. “It’s not an offense. Not an offense,” he kept saying, but he did look slightly offended. Fortunately, the experience taught me the meaning of an imminently useful term: “jobsworth.” Now, wherever I go, I keep my eyes open for these characters. It’s amazing what you can find when you know what you’re looking for.
The British Museum. How do I communicate the weight this place contains? I touched stones from Egypt, cut before King David was born. I stood in front of a column, carved by a man who watched King Jehu kiss the ground in front of Shalmaneser III. “The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri…” Faces that braved the sands of Middle Eastern storms now stare indifferently over the heads and baseball caps and flashbulbs of people who traveled thousands of miles to see them. Children sit on the edges of sarcophagi. Teenage girls pose with Pharaohs’ daughters. I could spend hours staring at the stone brow of Tiglath Pileser, tracing in my mind the centuries since the chisel had shaped his large nose and curly beard. When Jesus walked on earth, this bit of rock already bore the likeness of an Assyrian king. Even as his body blows around as dust in the desert, time has turned his face to stone.
The mass of the museum is exhausting. After a few hours, we filed past an eight-foot basalt statue from Easter Island, down the stairs under the simper of the Buddha Amitabha, and out into the sunlight. Lunch was Indian food (including batada wada, which we found necessary to say over and over again). We toured the National Gallery for half an hour, speed-walking past hushed crowds in soft rooms. Van Gogh, Monet, and Caravaggio whistled by, but Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer all received more than a glance. As in the museum, the immanence of the art was almost oppressive, like a weight on the chest. It was partly the thought of Rembrandt hovering in front of his easel, dabbing paint just so, and partly the uncanny knowledge that the figures in the paintings seemed to possess. It was easy to think that the roles had been reversed, that they were the onlookers and we were the art. The feeling only faded when we descended the steps into the noise and busyness of Trafalgar Square.
A walk to Buckingham Palace, a stop at Herrod’s, a truffle with champagne filling (70p), and an excellent spaghetti dinner with friends. Then, swish, the tube, rattle, the station, and home to bed.
And that was Thursday.